Emerging Technologies

How IP laws can be reimagined to stimulate innovation

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By placing the focus of IP laws on diversity and innovation, we can incentivise collaboration, reward innovation, and offer more equitable opportunities for creators Image: Manyone A/S

Jens Martin Skibsted
Partner, Manyone A/S
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  • Current IP laws aren't adapted to the realities of multicultural societies and fast-changing economies.
  • IP laws need to adapt to protect multi-generational and collective knowledge, and need to move away from prioritizing norms such as individual rights and commercialization.
  • By placing the focus of IP laws on diversity and innovation, we can incentivise collaboration, reward innovation, and offer more equitable opportunities for creators.

Intellectual Property (IP) laws are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they enable creators to reap the full value of their creativity without fearing appropriation or imitation. On the flip side, IP laws can often be inimical to innovation and productivity when they do not consider the context and nuance in which a specific work was created and what it means for the larger society.

When US Trade Rep Katherine Tai announced the Biden administration’s support for waiving IP protection on COVID-19 vaccines, it was based on this premise. Indeed, no context or nuance could be larger than the biggest global health crisis in a century. Although Biden’s decision drew the ire and condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry, the point had already been made. At a time when we needed to get as many safe and effective vaccines as possible across the world - especially to poorer nations, IP laws were among the chief factors holding us back.


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Adapting IP to the digital age

The digital age has introduced a new era of innovation, one that has seen the advent of new technologies, services, and products that have revolutionized the way we live and operate. From the rise of the internet to the emergence of social media, the world we live in today is vastly different from the one we knew even a decade ago. But while technology has continued to evolve and human design processes are driving exponential growth, IP laws have largely stayed the same.

In today’s dynamic world where many rely heavily on technology to survive, continuous innovation is paramount. However, innovation will happen at a snail’s speed when would-be creators cannot leverage existing inventions when IP laws restrict them.

American software programmer Richard Stallman foresaw the challenges we are faced with today when he launched the GNU Project and founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985.

The free software movement activist sought to grant end-users the freedom to create, modify, and share software as a pathway to faster innovation. Decades down the line, open source models are now standard for facilitating the sharing of ideas and resources, allowing for the development of new and improved products and services.

Current IP laws are designed to protect creators and inventors from having their work copied, stolen, or otherwise exploited without their consent. This is a noble goal, but the laws need to address our constantly evolving times adequately. For instance, it can be difficult to enforce copyright when an individual can easily copy and share digital content online.

The prevention of the flow of ideas and collaboration between inventors and creators are also a consequence of the restrictiveness of the current laws. Good ideas, in this case, need to be enabled, but all our IP laws can do, at best, is lock them up in cages—modern ones nonetheless.

We face similar challenges with IP laws across everything else, from how we leverage frontier technologies to design new products and services to our ability to drive innovation across diverse cultural and design applications. Indeed, emerging conversations about AI's rights intellectual property - well, actually any type of intelligence’s rights - shows how far down the road IP laws still need to travel to catch up.


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Redesigning IP laws for global inclusivity

The dynamics of our rapidly evolving global community demand that we reframe IP laws to spur innovation because innovation is critical to human progress, not just because it is key to long-term economic growth and prosperity, but also because it’s our only way to respond to a constantly evolving world.

However, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how intellectual property ownership is viewed and shared, to achieve this. At the moment, what IP laws do best is help large companies fence off competition. Good for the bottom line, but not so great for evening the playing field and innovation.

People are circumventing IP laws by creating workarounds to drive cutting-edge innovation. Crowdsourcing platforms continue to grow, as people look to create together across disciplines and cultures without worrying about patents.

Creative Commons licences also allow creators to make their work available to the public while still retaining some control over how the material is used. By utilising these tools, innovators are pushing back at the restrictive boundaries of IP laws. It is the only way to new and exciting ways of collaborative and productive design.

We need new creative ownership models that protect the rights of creators while simultaneously spurring new ways of enabling creative environments. One great example, which I've given elsewhere, is Africa's design space. If there's any place that demonstrates the inadequacy of today's IP system, it is here where intellectual property is as much a by-product of timeless collective knowledge.

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A way forward

IP laws need to adapt to protect multi-generational and collective knowledge—something they are currently ill-equipped for. The closest thing may be 'Protected Designation of Origin', but it does not protect inventions and technology from being copied. Today's IP laws are poorly suited to protect such "indigenous" knowledge because they are usually based on Western norms such as individual rights and commercialization. It's a glaring issue that IP laws do not effectively protect core intellectual property in the world's second largest continent.

If we truly want to spur innovation globally, we must recognize all forms of intellectual creations —from AI to all humans—and make space for them in our legal frameworks.

If IP laws will continue to be useful in the future, then we must open them up to multiple and evolving intellectual realities, especially those that seek to reward not just the creator in the individualist sense, but also everyone involved in the creative process, from the individual to the community. And the onus must be on innovation not protection. This would incentivise collaboration, reward innovation, and offer more equitable opportunities for creators and creative spaces.

Hence, rather than viewing IP from a narrow prism of ownership—a viewpoint restricting reproduction, use, and modification, we need IP laws to reflect the realities of design today in a way that enables everyone to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd. How we get there will require reframing and enlarging our concepts of who owns what and how.

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